Malone: Nuggets must be ‘more mentally tough’on August 22, 2020 at 7:29 am

Michael Malone looked at the final stat sheet like he typically does after a game, but he didn’t need the numbers to confirm what he witnessed.

“If you dig deeper into that … I think we give in too easy,” the Denver Nuggets‘ coach said Friday. “Our group has to be a lot more mentally tough.”

The Nuggets, the third seed in the Western Conference, are in trouble after they were crushed 124-87 by the Utah Jazz in Game 3 of their first-round NBA playoff series in Lake Buena Vista, Florida.

After winning Game 1 in overtime, the Nuggets have been blown out in the past two games by a total of 56 points and now trail 2-1 in the series. On Friday, they were beaten at the 3-point line by Mike Conley Jr., manhandled in the paint by Rudy Gobert and stifled by Utah defenders such as Royce O’Neale.

“None of us are performing. I’m not coaching well enough; we’re not playing well enough,” Malone said. “And a lot has to change going into Game 4, because this is two games in a row we’ve gotten our ass kicked.”

Denver overcame a 2-1 deficit in the first round last postseason by winning Game 4 on the road before beating the San Antonio Spurs in seven games. But Donovan Mitchell and the Jazz have all the momentum right now after drilling 54 3-pointers in their past three games, third most in a three-game span in NBA postseason history, according to Elias Sports Bureau research.

“I mean, it’s not over,” said Nuggets All-Star Nikola Jokic, whose team is playing without injured starters Gary Harris (hip) and Will Barton (not with team to rehab knee). “There’s still plenty of games. We just need to play a little bit with more discipline and a little bit more focused on small things — going to the corner, running with discipline. Just be little bit more disciplined in my opinion.”

Denver’s three best players — Jokic, Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. — have to raise their level of play. Jokic had 15 points, 6 assists and 5 rebounds Friday but saw Gobert dunk his way to a playoff career-high 24 points and 14 rebounds. Gobert made 11 of 15 shots, including a postseason-high seven dunks.

The Nuggets looked lost and out of sync early.

“I mean, I think the energy was there, we were just kinda running around with no reason,” Jokic said. “We didn’t know what we were doing. Seems like that. The energy was there. We had energy, but it didn’t go the right way.”

Gobert had 12 of his points in the first quarter when Utah finished with a 12-4 run to take a 25-14 lead into the second quarter. The Jazz then opened the second with a 21-8 run to lead 46-22 with 6 minutes, 27 seconds remaining in the first half.

“It was a wrap,” Malone said of Denver’s play at the end of the first quarter and early in the second. “Everything after that, the second half and the last eight minutes of the second quarter, was just window dressing.”

Conley, who missed the series’ first two games after he left for the birth of his son, emerged out of quarantine to hit 7 of 8 3-pointers and score 27 points. It was the type of hot outside shooting the Nuggets needed from their point guard. But Murray missed 6 of 8 3-point attempts and finished with 12 points and six assists.

After having 36 points and nine assists in a scintillating Game 1 overtime duel against Mitchell, Murray has totaled 26 points and 10 assists, shooting a combined 11-for-29 in the past two games while seeing O’Neale switched onto him.

Porter, meanwhile, was held to seven points and five rebounds Friday.

“We just got blown out twice,” Murray repeated when asked what the mood of the locker room was like and how difficult it was to take that beating.

“We have been down before,” Murray later added. “It’s time for us to respond.”

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